Outcry Against 710 Tunnel Plan for Southern California
Ara Najarian Featured at Two City Meetings
BY ELISE KALFAYAN
A proposal for two 4.5 mile tunnels linking the 710 Freeway to the 210 Freeway (from El Sereno in Los Angeles through South Pasadena to Pasadena), each with four traffic lanes, with likely costs in the tens of billions of dollars, is set to come before the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority along with other options later this fall.
This plan is one of five options consultants have identified for “relieving congestion and increasing mobility.” Cities, residents and businesses along the route are outraged. Their concerns: destruction of neighborhoods, increased pollution, added traffic, safety risks, huge financial risks, and the misallocation of taxpayer funds. After a recent outcry from El Sereno and other affected neighborhoods, Los Angeles City Council voted to officially oppose the tunnel plan as well as the surface alternatives.
Glendale City Council member Ara Najarian, who serves on the Metro Board, has questioned the viability and cost estimates of this huge tunnel for years. Najarian received the loudest applause from the more than 400 people who attended a September 18 panel discussion organized by Pasadena City Council member Steve Madison. Najarian told the audience that his persistence in asking Metro staff and officials for a solid cost estimate has been met with derision and ridicule, and that his concerns have been ignored. Previous estimates for such a project range from $1 billion to $14 billion. “Governor Christie of New Jersey pulled the plug on a tunnel project because he said his state couldn’t afford it – and that was $10 billion!” he said. Engineers and consultants are “chewing through” $900 million in funds allocated for studying such a project. “They aren’t going to tell you ‘it won’t work,’ at the $100 million mark!” he said. “It will be at the $900 million mark.”
Najarian went into details about the plans to finance the huge project: through a public private partnership with a foreign firm that would recoup its investment from tolls of at least $20. “The model for that tolling includes trucks,” said Najarian. Additional truck traffic directed up through Pasadena and onto the 210 freeway is of major concern to the communities at the north end of the proposed tunnel. Metro continues to be cagey about whether and how many and what kinds of trucks will be allowed in a tunnel, as trucks have become a flashpoint issue.
The solution Najarian and other cities, political leaders, and advocacy groups are calling for is a comprehensive freight to rail system at the ports that will take trucks off the urban roadways, and more public transit.
Najarian concluded: “This tunnel will not work. This tunnel is an outdated idea. We can build on Metro’s legacy and put in more light rail, and we can put freight on rails.” (Pasadena taped and will re-broadcast this forum several times on its public access channel – check the city website for details.)
In the audience was South Pasadena City Council member Marina Khubesrian, M.D., who deplored the health effects of a new freeway route and advocated for better transit solutions during her campaign for office. The City of South Pasadena will be hosting its own forum on this subject September 26, 7pm, in the South Pasadena High School Auditorium, and Najarian will again be a featured panelist.
The City of South Pasadena is officially opposed to the tunnel. The City of Glendale is on record as officially opposing the plan. The City of Los Angeles now opposes the plan. California’s newly-drawn 43rd State Assembly District, which included Glendale, now includes the City of La Cañada Flintridge, which officially opposes the tunnel because it would bring thousands of additional vehicles each day onto the 210 Freeway. Greg Krikorian, who is a candidate for the 43rd District seat, has affirmed his opposition to the tunnel. Krikorian says he will advocate for better transportation options for the region.
The No 710 Action Committee was formed in 2009. Several members have been “Freeway Fighters” since the mid-twentieth century. They successfully blocked an earlier push to build a surface freeway through South Pasadena. They are also campaigning for a modern approach that invests in rail for freight and transit for people. This group has led the way for years by compiling facts, speaking out at transportation meetings, assembling data on health and safety issues, and collecting negative information about other major tunneling projects (such as Boston’s Big Dig, and Seattle’s Alaskan Way).
While group after group voices objections, and Caltrans is embarrassed by an investigation showing it has mismanaged properties along the route, wasting $22 million, Metro and Caltrans have so far refused to shelve the idea.
Najarian says “My position is that the tunnel should not be studied any more at all, primarily because in the end I’m confident that it will be rejected. Continued studies only benefit the interested consultants and engineers and lobbyists. Measure R has already earmarked $900 million for this, and it would be a shame if that money was spent on fruitless studies. Metro and Caltrans should just abandon the study, and use the huge savings for valuable projects like rail, roadway modifications, alternative transit, and completion of the Alameda Corridor East to get the freight from the Port of LA on the rails.”
On his push for cost estimates, Najarian told me: “My question is, in light of the wide range of existing estimates for the tunnel, from $4 billion to $12 billion, how can we go forward without knowing what the costs will be? When I kept asking about this Metro gave me another number which was magically just $2.8 billion! Their main justification was a cost comparison to the estimated cost of the Seattle tunnel known as the Alaskan Way. This is regardless of the fact that the Seattle tunnel has not been built, and ignoring the fact that Boston’s Big Dig tunnel should be a more accurate representation of what true tunneling costs are in an urban environment!”
Najarian and most other opponents believe this expensive project is being pushed to accommodate trucks. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the primary purpose of the 710 tunnel is to facilitate truck traffic to and from the ports. Metro staff have told me that trucks are deeply embedded in their modeling to make this financially viable. Trucks are a key component to this project’s success, mainly because there will be a $20 approximate toll for vehicles to use the tunnel. Passenger vehicles might exit before the tunnel begins, but they fully anticipate trucks to factor a toll into the cost of business.”
Marina Khubesrian says the SR-710 extension is the wrong solution to a problem. “The stated need is to reduce surface traffic as well as to more evenly distribute the north/south traffic in the LA area. Experience and research has shown this will not accomplish that stated purpose. The phenomenon of induced traffic happens in a short time: new freeways are quickly filled, and the same problems will resume.
“Building a freeway in a populated urban community will increase the load of environmental toxins and pollutants that have been proven to cause cancer, respiratory, and immune diseases in susceptible persons. Also, greenhouse gases are real and combustion of petroleum results in ozone decay which exposes all living things on the planet to harmful radiation.
“The alternative I prefer is to have Metro build on its legacy of light rail and bus transit to move people, and to use heavy rail for moving freight. I would like us to think about moving people and goods, instead of cars and trucks. We need to have sustainable forms of transport for the future. Freeways are not going to solve our problem in the long run, as population and transportation needs increase.”
Khubesrian is pleased with the increased number of coalitions and communities opposed to the SR-710. “The reality is sinking in, and people are becoming aware of the huge mega-project that this is, the amount of construction, hazards to the environment, pollutants brought to this area, and increased traffic.”
Greg Krikorian, in a recent email blast to La Canada supporters, said: “The increased air pollution and the disruption to local neighborhoods will cause much more harm than good. The SR-710 extension is simply unnecessary, and its continued study is another example of mismanagement at the state level. I am committed to representing constituents, not special interests, and I oppose the proposed extension of the 710 Freeway.”
Elise Kalfayan is a Glendale resident, a native Southern Californian, and a combined first/second generation Armenian-American. She has produced or edited print and online pieces on topics ranging from urban development to Armenian Church history. She is the publisher of a Glendale community news blog, and works as a contract writer, editor, and publishing consultant for clients including businesses, entrepreneurs, nonprofits, and memoirists.